The Ice Sages

“King Island,” 1974, by Rie Munoz, reprinted with permission of the Munoz Gallery, Juneau, Alaska. Munoz has a personal connection to Oregon State University. When she taught on King Island in 1951, one of her young students was Olga Muktoyuk, the mother of OSU anthropologist Deanna Paniataaq Kingston. More than two hundred galleries in the West feature Munoz’s colorful watercolors.

By Lee Anna Sherman

After years of warm weather and poor ice in the Bering Strait, the winter of 2006 felt more like the winters of old. On a rocky island 40 miles off the Alaska coast, thick ice hemmed the shores well into June. For two Inupiat men who volunteered to help an OSU team conduct research there, the ancestral tug was too strong to fight. They suspended their work to join a walrus hunting party, heading out in an aluminum skiff toward the massive floes drifting northward.

“Walrus,” one King Islander says simply, “is very much part of our life.”

For centuries, the tusked pinnipeds were the mainstay of King Island. Their rich, fatty meat was a prized delicacy. Their skins were stitched for boats, parkas and mukluks. Their hides kept the winds from screaming through the people’s huts. Rope was fashioned from walrus rawhide. Tusks were carved as tools, or with decorative scrimshaw for trade on the mainland. Even the intestinal lining, lightweight and waterproof, was sewn into raingear. Every part of the honored animal was used.

One hunter, when asked about the significance of walrus to King Islanders, answered, “You can’t live without it.”

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Social structure, values and spirituality also centered on the great ice-borne beasts of the Arctic. Skilled hunter Vince Pikonganna reports that the walrus hunt “binds people together.” Bonds of kinship and friendship, he says, are “re-glued” as the community works in concert for mutual survival. “Sharing, sharing is a big thing among the natives, sharing,” Pikonganna stresses.

But the ancestral connection to the sea and its creatures is growing fainter each generation — not only for King Islanders but for all the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, the Inupiaq, Yupik and Alutiiq (peoples known collectively as Eskimo) and the Athabaskan Indians of Alaska’s interior. That’s because they are, to borrow a phrase from the First Alaskans Institute, “at the epicenter of global warming.” As temperatures rise and ice recedes, marine animals migrate northward or spiral into decline, seas surge higher and storms rage more fiercely. The Anchorage Daily News reported in April that 184 coastal and river communities in Alaska are already feeling the effects of increasing erosion, melting permafrost and collapsing fisheries.

Scientists are in agreement that northern populations deeply reliant on nature are on the front lines of climate change, precisely because their sustenance and their culture are embedded in — indeed, are indistinguishable from — the natural world. The very reliance on nature that makes indigenous people vulnerable to shifting climates, however, also makes them repositories of centuries-old knowledge. Western scientists are beginning to actively seek that knowledge to help them puzzle out the intricate ecological systems of the Arctic.

One of those Western scientists, OSU anthropologist Deanna Paniataaq Kingston, is leading an effort to preserve the ecological knowledge of King Islanders. With $540,000 in support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she and an interdisciplinary team of researchers are working with Inupiat elders to catalog the place names, edible plants, birds and dialect of the island. And, as the scientists are discovering, King Islanders’ intricate knowledge of weather, currents and ice formations wraps around everything. The OSU team believes that critical clues to Arctic climate systems reside in the community’s collective understanding of its world.

“At King Island we lived by the weather.”

Paul Tiulana, author

A Place for Winter, 1987On a misty August morning in 2004, Kingston — white-knuckled, sweating in her emergency immersion suit — was about to touch down on her ancestral homeland. She held her breath as the chopper pilot circled the fog-shrouded island, looking for a clearing. A descendant of the storied walrus hunters of King Island, the OSU anthropologist embodied two distinct worldviews as she took her first step onto that rocky outcropping in the Bering Sea: Western science and traditional knowledge.

Raised mostly in the Lower 48, Kingston is a product of mainstream America. Her Inupiaq mother rarely talked about her early childhood on the island, so Kingston gathered what fragments of King Island culture she could from her uncles Gabe, Alex and Edward Muktoyuk and her Aunt Margaret. But as a graduate student at OSU and then at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she dove headlong into her lost heritage. She researched traditional kinship patterns. She documented dances that celebrated hunting success. She interned at the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, studying artifacts and photos. She worked on a film collection of last-century King Island life, originally housed at Santa Clara University and now residing at the Human Studies Film Archives at the National Museum of Natural History.

She saw the early 20th-century sepia tones of frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis and the black-and-white photographs of “glacier priest” Bernard Hubbard, capturing hundreds of images of life from the time when winters were colder and longer. Those images — of faces framed by fur-trimmed parkas, of walrus-skin huts secured to the near-vertical cliff by driftwood stilts, of hunting and dancing and boat building, of mothers carrying babies bundled snuggly on their backs — were, for Kingston, a haunting reminder of what had already been lost.

In 2003, the NSF grant gave Kingston the chance to meld the two worldviews that not only define her as a person, but that also form a more complete understanding of Arctic ecology. The four-year study reflects a growing movement in anthropological and ecological studies to draw upon the wisdom of ages. Traditional ecological knowledge — TEK — has gained stature recently among natural resource managers, biologists and social scientists as an important complement to Western scientific knowledge about plants, animals and the environment.

The international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, for instance, drew heavily on indigenous knowledge for its comprehensive (and dire) report, Impact of a Warming Arctic, published by Cambridge University Press in 2004. “As the indigenous peoples perceive it,” writes author Susan Joy Hassol, “the Arctic is becoming an environment at risk in the sense that the sea ice is less stable, unusual weather patterns are occurring, vegetation cover is changing, and particular animals are no longer found in traditional hunting areas during specific seasons. Local landscapes, seascapes and icescapes are becoming unfamiliar, making people feel like strangers in their own land.”

Zeroing in on one of the hundreds of indigenous groups in the Arctic Circle, which embraces the coasts of Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland, OSU’s project “seeks to understand King Island TEK as a complete system of knowledge,” Kingston says. “We hope to document not only King Islander knowledge of their physical environment, but also how the physical environment is incorporated into their belief system, values and rules for behavior.”

Since the islanders relocated to the mainland a half-century ago, the old ways have become harder and harder to keep. For Kingston and her colleagues, there is a sense of urgency to documenting a culture that began to disintegrate in 1959 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed its school and threatened to arrest islanders who failed to send their children to mainland schools. A few families at a time, the community drifted to Nome. By 1966, the island was used only as a seasonal hunting camp. Just 30 or 40 of the men still hunt, now using aluminum motorboats instead of their once-famed skin umiaks. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently named King Island one of the 11 most endangered historical sites in the U.S.

So when one of the elders of King Island, a woman named Marie Saclamana, asked Kingston to help save this ancient knowledge for yet another generation, Kingston pulled together a team of archaeologists and biologists, as well as a linguist specializing in Inupiaq. And she assembled a group of native King Islanders willing to revisit their childhood home — a place whose Inupiaq name, Ugiuvak (also spelled Ukivok), means “place for winter.”

These King Island elders have joined Kingston and her colleagues on their once-familiar island for the past two summers, foraging the boggy tundra atop the island for specimens of the greens, roots and berries that balanced their childhood diet of walrus, bearded seal and the occasional polar bear. OSU biologist Jesse Ford, one of Kingston’s co-principal investigators, is collaborating with the elders to identify and classify the subsistence plant species in both English and Inupiaq.

OSU ornithologist Kim Nelson is doing the same for King Island’s birdlife — the crested auklets, murres and other species that were prized not only for meat but also for eggs, collected from the craggy cliffs as the waves crashed below. Although much more data is needed, Nelson saw possible portents of changing distribution: a hermit thrush usually seen on the Seward Peninsula many miles to the south and a hawk owl, never before seen on the island. It’s too soon to tell whether these sightings were anomalies or signs of Arctic warming. “Were they pushed north on a storm?” Nelson posits. “Were they lost? Or are they expanding their range in response to climate change?” Only future population surveys will tell for sure.

“The ice never sleeps.”
Paul Tiulana

The theme that surfaces again and again in the King Islanders’ accounts is weather. Even in an earlier study of walrus hunters, Kingston, Ford and others found that although their knowledge of walrus biology was extensive, it was secondary to their knowledge of winds, currents, storms and, above all, ice. “Really, walrus hunting is only partially about the walrus,” says Ford. “It’s everything about the ice, the winds and the weather, about which there is a very detailed understanding.”

To survive in the Bering Sea is to know ice, intimately, in all its forms: the shore ice (“landfast ice”) that freezes outward, anchored to the land. The pack ice (“sea ice”) that drifts by, bearing seals and walruses and polar bears. The channels through the ice (“leads”) that provide avenues for kayaks and umiaks. The open water (“polynyas”) encircled by pack ice where marine mammals come up to breathe.

Over and over, the elders say the ice is changing. It forms later in the fall and melts earlier in the spring. It’s thinner, less likely to hold the weight of a walrus — or a man. “We hardly catch any walrus now because the ice is too thin,” one hunter reports. Says another, Joe Kunnuk Sr.: “Sometimes, I think to myself I don’t know if I’m going to see walrus again because of the weather and ice conditions.”

This ice decline, long known to the King Islanders, has only lately captured the attention of the American public. Typically, Americans’ notions of the Arctic have been limited to the historic and heroic (the expeditions of Robert Peary and Richard Byrd) or have tended toward the romantic, quaint and exotic (igloos and the Iditarod, the aurora borealis and “land of the midnight sun”). But a sober new awareness of the Arctic impacts on global warming is taking hold. So, as climate science begins to make headlines in hometown dailies, terms such as “albedo” (ice’s reflective whiteness, a shield against heat absorption), “under-ice algae,” “polar amplification,” and “ice-edge systems” are seeping into popular parlance.

Now that the stakes of unchecked Arctic warming are crystallizing in the collective psyche, it is increasingly important, Ford says, for willing bearers of Western and indigenous knowledge, despite their vastly disparate paradigms and epistemologies, to work toward a more complete understanding of what is happening, and perhaps come up with novel ways to address emerging issues. “We’re under the gun,” she says. “Eco- systems are collapsing and cultures are struggling, left, right and center — cultures that are based on those ecosystems.”

Jessica Cardinal, who interviewed walrus hunters along with Kingston and Ford as a graduate student in OSU’s Marine Resources Management program, notes, “Western science and knowledge, while creative at predicting global environmental change, is limited in its understanding of how climate will change processes and events at the local level.” Now an academic adviser for the College of Science and coordinator for the Native Americans in Science, Engineering and Natural Resources program, Cardinal explains the unique contributions of indigenous knowledge this way: “The capacity of local peoples can add site-specific information, bring attention to signs or indicators, and highlight relational information.”

One big drawback to Western Arctic research, for instance, is its small window in the annual calendar. “Scientists tend to go to the Arctic only in the summer, so they don’t have much of a research base on winter conditions,” Kingston notes. “Indigenous people can help them understand these infinitely complex ecosystems not only in July and August, but all year-round.”

Other coastal communities in Alaska are looking at the King Island experience as they face environmental pressures to move inland. The hunters and reindeer herders of Shishmaref, for instance, are resisting government efforts to relocate them to the mainland towns of Nome and Kotzebue from the rapidly eroding Seward Peninsula. What they have witnessed among dislocated King Islanders is the profound rending of a culture that has lost its center, its tether to the Earth. A 2005 study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to which Kingston contributed, concluded that “historical case studies show that this scenario of ‘forced relocation’ would have dramatically negative cultural, economic, health and social impacts on the community of Shishmaref.”

In the Bering Strait, one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, King Islanders lived sustainably on their small volcanic island for at least a millennium. In the first-ever archaeological study there, the OSU team has found remnants of a prehistoric village. Archaeologist Matt Ganley of the Bering Straits Foundation, one of the principal investigators on the OSU team, discovered evidence of four or five stone houses clustered high above sea level. A partial excavation turned up pottery shards, charcoal and sea mammal bones. Radiocarbon tests dated the site at about 900 years old.

“In the Native way, everything is given by nature.”
Paul Tiulana

“Islands in the Bering Sea,” says Ganley, “are known to have a history of occupation spanning 2,000 to 3,000 years.”

Over those millennia, a unique dialect of the Inupiaq language arose on King Island. Today, only about 100 native speakers remain. Lawrence Kaplan, the linguist working with the OSU research team, is compiling a dictionary to preserve the dialect — and the knowledge it encodes. “Language is closely tied to culture,” says Kaplan, who directs the Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “If a language isn’t used, cultural subtleties that are instantiated within the language can get lost.”

Nowhere are these linguistic subtleties more pronounced, he says, than in King Islanders’ expression of weather phenomena. While English often uses “circumlocutions” — roundabout ways — to talk about weather, the islanders have a very direct and specific vocabulary to pinpoint precise details that can mean feast or famine, life or death.

So from the root word for “ice,” sigu (also a verb meaning “when water freezes over”) are derived words to distinguish the strength of the ice relative to a hunter’s weight: siguaq means “a thin layer of new ice not strong enough to walk on,” while siguliaq means “young ice that is a few inches thicker, now possible to walk on.” Another unique term captures a traditional signal among walrus hunters: the verb stem silik-, meaning “to jump sideways on the ice,” which alerts fellow hunters of a walrus kill from a distance. Siliktuq, then, means “he’s jumping sideways on the ice because a walrus has been killed.”

Kingston’s sense of urgency for the preservation of this unique culture was refueled recently when she ran across a report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Nine baby walruses had been sighted far from shore in the Arctic Sea in the summer of 2004, swimming alone and barking plaintively at a passing research ship. Scientists aboard speculated that, in the absence of ice in the warmest water ever recorded there, walrus mothers had been forced to abandon their two-month old calves while they foraged for food in shallower waters.

For a dwindling band of walrus hunters, and for the anthropologist who studies and loves them, those plaintive barks echo mournfully.

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